Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen chose this subject for tonight’s discussion for several reasons. This year marks the 30th anniversary both of Gorbachev’s formal introduction of his democratization policies in the Soviet Union and of the INF Treaty, signed by him and US President Reagan, the first—and still the only—abolition of an entire category of nuclear weapons. In addition, for Cohen, 2017 also marks the anniversary of his first personal meeting with Gorbachev, in Washington in November 1987. Over the years, their relationship has grown into a personal, family friendship, and has included many private discussions about politics, past and present. The most recent discussion, three hours over dinner, took place in late July at a restaurant near Gorbachev’s home, about a 50-minute drive from Moscow. Also present were Cohen’s wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel—publisher and editor of The Nation—and Dmitrii Muratov, editor of the independent Moscow newspaper Novaia Gazeta, of which Gorbachev is a minority owner.
Cohen asked Gorbachev, on this multiple 30th anniversary, whether he felt his legacies, and his place in history, had been lost in light of events since 1987 and especially since he left power in 1991. Gorbachev has addressed variations of these questions many times over the years, often in English translation, as a quick Google search will reveal (and as Gorbachev will do again in a forthcoming book, for those interested in hearing him speak for himself). Now 86 years old and in poor health, but mentally as engaged as ever, Gorbachev reiterated two points he has made before. Regarding democracy in Russia, it is a long process with forward and backward stages, but ultimately inevitable, because several generations of Russians now adhere to the democratic values and principles he advocated while in power. Regarding the new Cold War, he ascribes the largest responsibility to US and European leaders, particularly American ones, who did not seize the opportunity he (and Reagan) left behind.
That evening led Cohen to make the following points in his radio conversation with Batchelor:
§ The situation and perceptions today, certainly in the US political-media establishment, could hardly be more unlike they were while Gorbachev was Soviet leader and shortly after. Hopes for an American strategic partner in the Kremlin have given way to nearly consensual assertions that the current Kremlin leader, President Vladimir Putin, poses a worse threat to democracy everywhere and to US national security than did even his Soviet Communist predecessors. And hopes 30 years ago for a world without Cold War and nuclear buildups on both sides have been vaporized by unrelenting Cold War politics in Washington and by inclinations, both in Washington and Moscow, favoring another nuclear arms race. The alternatives presented by Gorbachev are no longer discussed, or even remembered, lost in a haze of historical amnesia, it seems.